Special Report: High-Tech Drones for Ag

Special Report: High-Tech Drones for Ag

Can unmanned high-tech drones bring billions to the ag industry in the Valley?
They kill from above... relentless and plotting, devoid of any emotion, efficient killers that have become the U.S. military's weapon of choice in the middle east.

But here in the Valley, that perception is changing. Drone technology that used to take life is now being researched to aide it.

At only a few feet wide and costing well under $1,000, U.C. Merced student Brendan Smith's unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, bares little resemblance to an expensive killer drone. It can take off virtually anywhere. "All we need is a very small area. We can do it in the middle of crops; we can do it anywhere," said Smith. 

And what it lacks in flash, it makes up for in possibilities, carrying cameras and metering devices of all types. "robust, Reliable and low cost, so affordable," said Professor YangQuan Chen.

Easy to use is something you hear a lot from the professor. He came to the U.C. Merced from Utah State, bringing a $300,000 NASA sponsorship and one goal... make UAVs accessible for agriculture.

U.C. Merced student Sean Rider said, "We'll be able to measure water levels, salinity levels, many things for agriculture."

Work is underway to create a personal UAV that can help farmers monitor crops using sophisticated sensory equipment. It's called "Print and Fly" and with the help of a 3D printer, it would allow farmers to simply print off a new wing or tail if they had one break.

Professor Chen said, "The UAV can be used so that optimal strategies can be applied, in terms of harvest, applying water, applying nutrients or control the pests."

But standing in the way is a growing fear UAVs could be used to violate the privacy of every day citizens. In many states, laws are already being drawn up to restrict their use.

CBS47 legal analyst, Carl Faller said, "Each state could establish individual laws for the use of UAVs and restrict their use greater than under normal search and seizure laws."

That is a fact that worries Fresno State Professor Gregory Kriehn. Since 2007 he has headed the school's UAV program and says at times, the biggest obstacle is public opinion. "Every now and then there are these technologies that come along that really transform the world. And what we are interested in doing is being able to adapt that technology so it is a benefit to society and a benefit to our lives," said Kriehn.

The school's newest aircraft is a state of the art, European made UAV that Kriehn hopes will lead to new agricultural uses, and for his students, a once in a lifetime chance to pioneer ground breaking technology.

U.C. Merced Student Paul Bennett said, "The most exciting thing is when we are trying out a new piece of equipment or trying out a new algorithm that we have no idea if it's going to work. And we'll test it out up in the air and sometimes it will work, and sometimes it doesn't."

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